Mental Activity and How the “Me” Exists
We began our discussion of the healthy development of the self through the lam-rim graded stages. And we saw that we need to differentiate quite clearly between the conventional self and the false self – the self that is to be refuted. When we speak about the self or “me,” this is what can be labeled on each moment of our experience and all the various factors, the so-called five aggregates that make up each moment of our experience. Each moment there is the experience of some mental activity – that’s what’s going on – and with this mental activity it has content. There’s some object that is arising like a mental hologram, and there is some sort of knowing of that object based on light and vibrations of air and so on coming in through the photosensitive and sound-sensitive sensor cells of the body and so on; and the brain, the nervous system and everything, all of that, transforms those signals, that information, into like a mental hologram and that’s what we perceive. So that is this mental activity; that is what knowing something is. It’s the creation of a mental hologram and that is a knowing of something.
Whether it’s a thought or it’s a sense perception, it’s the same type of mechanism. And the knowing of it is with some sort of consciousness – sense consciousness, mental consciousness. That is one of the aggregates that’s involved. And experiencing it means that it’s experienced with some level of happiness or unhappiness – that’s another aggregate. And to know anything there has to be able to occur a distinguishing of various items within a whole sense field; otherwise for instance sight is just then a mass of pixels – that’s not all that we are seeing, pixels, is it? You have to distinguish objects within it. And there are all sorts of emotions that are accompanying this and mental mechanisms like concentration, interest, attention, etc.
All of this is going on moment to moment. Each aspect of it is changing moment to moment at a different rate. And in each moment we can label “me” on it, that I’m experiencing this. It’s not that somebody else is experiencing it, but that “me” is – I mean we can get into of course a whole discussion of how that “me” exists, but the “me” is merely what can be labeled onto this. There’s a word “me”; there could be a name associated with it as well, in my case, Alex. But, I’m not just a word, “me”; I’m not just a name, obviously. But, that name or the word “me” can be used to refer to this experience – experiencing, I should say, this activity. And that “me” refers to someone. Who does it refer to? It refers to “me.” It doesn’t refer to you, it doesn’t refer to the table; it refers to “me.” So, that’s the conventional “me.” It actually exists.
How it exists and so on, well, that gets a little bit complicated. But it does exist. It functions: I do things, I experience things, etc. And when we think about “me,” we think about “me” through the category “me,” because each time, each moment what we’re experiencing is different so the so-called “basis for labeling” is changing all the time. So, although the word might stay the same – “me” – or the name might stay the same [and the category “me” stays the same], actually (the conventional “me”) is different in each moment depending on what’s being experienced.
It’s like for instance you have a movie. There’s the title of the movie, isn’t there? But the movie isn’t just the title. Each moment of the movie is different, but they are all that movie. The name of the movie refers to each of them. But now it’s this scene of the movie, that scene of the movie, that scene of the movie – so it’s changing moment to moment. The whole movie doesn’t play in one moment, does it? So, we have this conventional “me.” The name of the movie, the title of the movie [“me”] refers to the movie [“me”]. There is a movie that’s playing [the movie “me”], so “me” refers to something; the conventional “me.” There is a “me.”
So that’s the conventional “me,” and if we live our lives with that sense of “me” and thinking of ourselves and operating with that concept of “me,” that’s a healthy self. On that basis, I’m responsible for what I do. I experience results of what I do. It’s on that basis that we exert effort and willpower to actually do something, as in get out of bed in the morning. I need to get up in order to go to work or in order to take care of the children. That’s a conventional sense, a healthy sense of “me.” Please take a moment to affirm our understanding of the conventional “me”; we do exist.
And remember if we’re having difficulty with this whole concept of labeling – we had this exercise yesterday – try to think of yourself. And we discovered that you can’t think “me” without a basis, something representing that “me” in your thought, whether it’s simply the verbal sound of the word “me” – you think “me” – or a mental hologram of what you look like or some sort of feeling or something. And we label that “me” – we call that “me,” to put it in even simpler language – but I’m not the word “me”; I’m not the basis, not the mental hologram. There’s a “me.” So this is what mental labeling is; it’s labeled on that basis of what represents the “me” when we think about “me.”
Do you get that? We talk so much in Buddhism about mental labeling and yet it’s not that easy to really understand. Maybe this makes it a little bit easier.
Everyone looks deadly serious now, but you have to think something in order to think “me.” Whatever you think is not “me”; it’s something that represents “me.” So “me” is labeled; we call that “me.” So “me” is labeled on that. That label refers to something, but I’m not the mental sound of the word “me” – obviously not. That’s silly.
Okay, now, how does that “me” exist? So, there’s an actual way in which it exists, and there’s an impossible way in which we could imagine that it could exist but it can’t possibly exist that way because it’s impossible. I used this example yesterday, that
- "I’m one of seven billion people and nothing special about me; and I have to interact and live with everybody" – that’s correct.
- "I am the most special person in the universe and I should always have my way and I’m always right" and so on – that’s impossible.
What are we considering here? We are considering the conventional “me” which does exist. And considering how it exists: one is the actual way; the other one is impossible. So, the possible way, the way that is reality, refers to what actually exists – a manner of existence that actually is how our reality is. That impossible way of existing doesn’t refer to any way of existing that is real. It is our projection, a fantasy that “I am the center of the universe”; that anybody could be the most important in the world and should always be right and should always have their way. It doesn’t refer to any way of existing that could possibly happen.
So, these are two ways of considering the manner of existence of that same basis, the conventional “me.” The false “me” – what’s false actually is not the “me.” What’s false and to be refuted is the manner in which we imagine that this “me” exists. When we say the false “me,” there is no such “me” like that. That’s putting together the package of the conventional “me” that does exist and this impossible way of existing. Put that together as a package and then call that the false “me” – (that) doesn’t exist. There is no such thing. There is not such kind of person.
But if we look a little bit more precisely, then actually what we want to refute is this impossible way of existing of the conventional “me.” If we understand this, we make this fine distinction, then questions like those that came yesterday won’t arise. You know, “Who experiences physical sickness of the body?” was the question, “the conventional “me” or the false “me?’” Well, there is no false “me,” so the question is not really accurate in terms of the conceptual framework, not accurately asked. I’m experiencing the sickness; I’m experiencing the pain. It’s nobody else. That’s the conventional “me.” It can’t be anybody else.
So, really the only issue is how do I conceive of myself who is experiencing the sickness? We think of that “me” in terms of, well, “I’m not the only one who has ever experienced this sickness; there are tons of other people who have experienced it. It has arisen from causes and conditions; therefore it’s going to change from moment to moment because the causes and conditions that gave rise to it are changing moment to moment. Because there is nothing newly generating the sickness moment to moment to moment, because it’s arising from changing causes and conditions, it will come to an end.” Therefore on that basis I have patience etc., to deal with it in a healthy way.
Or, (consider the) inflated projection of how I exist: “I’m the only one in the universe who has ever had this”; “Poor me, I’m the victim; everybody should feel sorry for me”; “Everybody should pay special attention to me because I’m so miserable”; etc. Well what’s the result of that? I mean that is thinking in terms of an impossible way of existing. It’s still the conventional “me” who is experiencing this sickness. Nobody else is.
You see, it’s very important when we discuss this topic of the conventional “me” versus the false “me,” that we don’t conceive of them as the good “me” and the bad “me.” You know, this is bad “me” and it’s stupid, this is no good. And this is the good “me,” the conventional one. If you start to think in those sort of terms, you’re getting mislead; you’re misleading yourself in terms of how you would deal with this issue, how you overcome suffering.
The issue is really what we think of our self; how we imagine we exist. That’s the issue. The issue is not “me.” There is a “me.” Okay? Think about that. Because it’s our attitude – I mean if you think the problem is a false “me” that you have to somehow kick out of your head, that’s pretty weird – that’s sort of like some space invader who’s inside your head, some monster you have to kick out. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about changing our attitude – you change your attitude about yourself through understanding. That’s what Buddhism is all about.
To use a different terminology: you think the problem is having an ego, and that’s how you conceive of a false “me” – “Well, I just have to get rid of my ego, otherwise I’m going on an ego trip.” So that’s really the problem, having a big ego. And now we have this campaign to get rid of the ego. That is a complete misconception of the Buddhist path. It’s not what we’re talking about. So, please think about that because I think that most of us, coming from a Western background with a little bit of understanding of psychology according to Western theories, will superimpose that onto Buddhism and think that this is what we’re talking about, getting rid of the ego. It’s not that. We’re getting rid of an attitude, a misunderstanding of how we exist. So don’t think in terms of this terminology – ego and non-ego and this sort of stuff – it will just confuse you.
Digest that please – that’s a big meal to digest.
Moving from a Western to a Buddhist Conceptual Framework
Well, I think it will take quite a while to de-condition ourselves from analyzing and thinking in terms of a Western conceptual framework. How do we approach the Buddhist teachings and what have we learned in our lives beforehand? We have a Western conceptual framework in terms of, for instance psychology or it could be a Western religion – there are many different conceptual frameworks that we have acquired during our lifetimes prior to studying Buddhism. So naturally we try to make sense of what we hear – the hearing process, listening process of the Dharma – in terms of the conceptual framework that we are familiar with already. That leads to misunderstanding.
So, we need to learn the Buddhist conceptual framework. That’s why the study of the Buddhist teachings of all the lists – the fifty-one mental factors and the five aggregates and all these things – they’re not useless information. It provides the conceptual framework within which we can analyze and understand the deeper, more profound aspects of the Buddhist teachings. To try to understand the Buddhist teachings outside of that conceptual framework in terms of a different conceptual framework, it just doesn’t fit.
But we don’t just start our study with a complete new conceptual framework, obviously. So, the best attitude to have, the optimal attitude to have, is to accept that my initial understanding of the Buddhist teachings through my Western conceptual framework is simply provisional and I will need to revise it as I go deeper in my studies and not be attached to it. In order to revise it, you have to not be attached, otherwise you cling to it and insist that this is the only way to understand.
Each conceptual framework can be valid. We’re not saying that the Western conceptual frameworks for analyzing, such as psychology, etc., are stupid or invalid. They are valid, but there can be many conceptual frameworks for understanding the same phenomenon, which is basically our experience of life. So if we really want to benefit from the Buddhist teachings in the optimal way, we need to approach them, on a deeper and deeper level, through the Buddhist conceptual framework itself. And even within the Buddhist conceptual framework there are the different tenet systems and so on, which lead us to progressively deeper understandings. The conceptual framework is just a useful tool. But choose the right ones, choose the appropriate ones.
Okay? Now, the conventional “me” does exist; that’s what the label “me” refers to on the basis of ever-changing moments of our personal experience. And we saw that regardless of our previous conceptual framework in terms of how long does the self exist for, we saw that when you really look at it seriously, we do think in terms of an eternal self, as in the example of “I am dead.” Well, how can you be dead if you are nothing? If you are nothing you can’t even conceptualize “I am dead,” because there is no “I” that is dead, is there? So it might not be so clear in our minds that that is how we conceive of ourselves, as being eternal, but, okay, that actually is what we think.
The Lam-rim Teachings
Okay, now we look at the lam-rim teachings. That conventional “me” that is eternal, how do we work with that? How do we build that up in a healthy way so that we can actually overcome our problems? That’s what Buddhism is all about, isn’t it? To get rid of suffering. So to get rid of suffering and deal with our suffering you have to have a healthy sense of self, of a conventional self. If we need a healthy sense of self that takes responsibility for his or her life and that has some sort of will power to direct what we do – we saw that if you don’t have that, you’re can’t even get up out of bed in the morning to take care of the kids or go to work. If that’s the case, then how much more so do we need a healthy sense of self in order to go on the spiritual path to attain liberation and enlightenment?
Precious Human Life
Now, we start with the precious human life. If we have an eternal sense of self, then what we have now, this opportunity of the precious human life, is very, very rare. It’s incredible, fantastic; we have to make use of it. So, with the thoughts about the precious human rebirth and the appreciation of it, what do we develop? We develop a constructive attitude toward ourselves. “How fortunate I am, how incredible that this is what I am experiencing – I’m experiencing a precious human rebirth.” So, we start to have a positive attitude toward ourselves.
One friend of mine who is a Buddhist teacher has his students do a very strong type of exercise in order to appreciate the precious human life that they have. (He has his students) wear a very heavy thick black blindfold for an entire day and go for the entire day as a blind person, and then see how much you appreciate it when you take that blindfold off and you can see. It’s a very heavy exercise actually.
Maybe you have it here, but in Berlin we have so-called “blind restaurants” in which you go in and it is absolutely 100% dark, and you have to eat a meal like that. You try eating a meal in absolute darkness. There was also a museum exhibition in which it was an absolutely pitch dark black and there was a market place set up and so on, and you try to go shopping being blind. Then you start to really appreciate what we have, just the simple thing of sight. Or with very heavy earphones and earplugs, being deaf for a day; or how about being in a wheel chair for a day. These things are very powerful for demonstrating to us how fortunate we are that we have a respite, we have a temporary freedom from such situations.
It doesn’t mean that blind people and deaf people can’t follow the Dharma and improve themselves. Nowadays it is possible. But, it’s much more difficult. So if we don’t have that challenge, then how much more fortunate are we. [And if we are blind or deaf, think about how fortunate we are that we are not further challenged.] So, we don’t have to go through the lower realms and stuff like that; just imagine if you had palsy and your head was shaking all the time. How would you be able to read? It’s incredible that we don’t have that, if we don’t have that. Or Down syndrome – you can’t understand anything. Or if there were no opportunity for education – the whole society is barbaric, or there are absolutely no spiritual teachers, no support for any spiritual interest.
For those of you who are old enough, compare the opportunities that you had during the Soviet period and the opportunities that you have now. So, thinking like this we realize how fortunate I am. We’re talking about the conventional “me.” So this is a very positive way of looking at ourselves. Let’s think about that. That’s where we begin in the Buddhist training to develop a healthy sense of “me,” by starting to appreciate how fortunate I am. And what an opportunity I have to do something positive with my life, especially in light of the fact that I’m going to go on forever.
Discriminating Awareness and Entrusting Ourselves to Ourselves
Okay. Now, I should mention, I suppose, how do we actually think about this? How do you actually meditate on this? We’re thinking about “me” – the conventional “me,” remember? – and then there was something that represents “me.” So, we could have a mental picture of ourselves, whatever you want to have. It doesn’t matter. It could just be the sound of the mental word “me.” Okay, now, how do we exist? Remember this is the issue: what is correct, what is impossible or incorrect. Here we’re talking about incorrect, because it could be possible. So we’re using what’s called “discriminating awareness,” to discriminate between what is correct and what’s incorrect.
What is correct here is that we are not blind, for example. So, we are free of being blind – temporarily, because you can lose your sight as you get older – and we have sight. So, what’s absent, what’s present. I can see; I’m not blind. I’m free; I’m not in jail. This type of thing. Now, we can bring in the two main attitudes that we have in the teachings on how to entrust ourselves to a spiritual teacher. What are the two attitudes? One is firm conviction in the good qualities of the teacher. So here we’re talking about firm conviction in the fact that we have these incredible freedoms. I have sight; I am not blind. I have freedom; I’m not in prison. And there’s a whole long list from the teachings on the precious human rebirth.
So “Yes, I really do have freedom, at least for the time being, from this impediment, this disability. And I do have the opportunity of what’s available [the faculty of vision]. Yes, I really do” – you have to be really very convinced of that. So that’s one part of our attitude here when thinking about “me.” And then what is the other part of the proper attitude when entrusting ourselves to a teacher is appreciation of the kindness of the teacher. So here we appreciate not so much the kindness, but the benefit that we have because of being free from this disability; our life that’s enriched with opportunities. So, appreciating that. This is fantastic! to put it in simple language. “I really have this opportunity and this is fantastic.” That’s the way in which you focus on “me” having this precious human rebirth. “I really have it and wow! It’s incredible, fantastic. I really appreciate it.” Think like that for a moment. And remember the most important quality that we have is that I’m not closed-minded about the Dharma, about the spiritual path; I’m open-minded about it. That’s the most fantastic thing that we have.
Good. So we start to counter this “poor me” attitude with which we are thinking of ourselves as existing in this impossible way, this incorrect way – so-called “false me.” “Poor me, I can’t do anything,” etc. It’s really very interesting to examine this “poor me” attitude. “Poor me – I don’t have a girlfriend,” “I don’t have a boyfriend,” “I don’t have children;” “Poor me – I don’t make enough money.” We’re thinking of all these qualities that make “me” into a “poor me.” What does that do? It makes you miserable when you think about it, doesn’t it? Whereas if you think in terms of “How fantastic that I’m not blind, that I’m not paralyzed, that I am not completely closed-minded – wow, it’s great!” So we have a much more positive attitude toward the conventional “me.” And it starts to build up a healthy sense of “me.”
Bringing in Kindness, Gratitude, Love, and Compassion
Now let’s bring in another factor from the Dharma teachings. You know, the whole art of studying the Dharma is that the more that you learn, the more able you are to put the different pieces of the Dharma together in many, many more creative beneficial ways. So let’s bring in some advice from the teachings on the seven-part cause and effect meditation on bodhichitta. How do you do this? We were thinking about appreciating the kindness of the spiritual teacher. So, we appreciate the kindness and the opportunity and how fantastic it is that I have this precious human life. So now, in your internal search engine you put in “kindness” and you click, and you see what are the teachings that are talking about kindness? Oh, everybody’s been my mother, how kind they were when they’ve been our mother. And now let’s see can these two pieces fit together. That’s how you put the Dharma pieces of the puzzle together through your internal search engine.
We see in that seven-part cause and effect meditation, the step after remembering the kindness of motherly love is that we have this feeling of – usually it’s just translated as wanting to “repay that kindness,” but that sounds as though I have a debt and I’m guilty if I don’t repay it and so on. That’s a misconception of it. But, actually the attitude is that “You’re so kind to me, I’m really grateful.” It’s gratitude. And because you feel so grateful, you’d like to also be kind back. But the state of mind is not that I have a debt; the state of mind is gratitude. So “I appreciate that I have this precious human life, I’m grateful.” And what comes automatically when we feel this great gratitude and appreciation [in the context of recognizing everyone as having been our mothers in some previous lifetime and remembering the kindness of the motherly love we have received]? It’s heart-warming love, that anytime that you see anybody it just warms your heart – “Oh how wonderful to see them; it would really be terrible if something bad happened to them.”
So likewise if we apply this to the meditation on the precious human life and think in terms of “Wow, it’s so fantastic these opportunities that I have,” then I’m grateful for that, I appreciate it, and when I think of myself I have a positive attitude. I feel good about myself. That’s so important.
In the meditations for developing bodhichitta what follows from that is love – the wish for others to be happy and have the causes for happiness; and compassion – the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. So likewise, from having this positive warm attitude about ourselves, because we appreciate so much this freedom that we have, these opportunities, that then that would lead to being more concerned about, “I really would like to be happy and have the causes for happiness and be free of suffering and the causes for suffering.” So this starts to lead to taking some responsibility about it. Do you follow that?
Being Mindful of Death
Now, of course the situation that we have, these opportunities that we have, won’t last. We’re going to die – that’s reality – so we’re going to lose this opportunity. We really have to take advantage of it while we have it. It’s like you’re at the cafeteria and it closes at two o’clock, and you better take your meal before two because then it will be closed and there will be no food available. So, you take advantage of that opportunity that you have, that window of opportunity, before it closes. It’s quite clear.
And you don’t even have to think exclusively of death here. What about old age? We need to use this opportunity that we have before we start to lose our memory, before the sight gets weaker and the hearing gets weaker and you have less energy to do anything and so on. There’s that suffering of sickness and old age, not just the suffering of death. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, old age seems very far away, but when you’re my age – I’m sixty-eight – then you really start to take seriously how many years of productive life do I have left. You never know what’s going to happen.
So we develop a sense of caring about what happens to us and what we experience, not just now but also in the future. This is very, very important in terms of the development of a healthy sense of self. We have a positive attitude toward ourselves because we appreciate what we have and “I would like to be happy; but not just happy right now, but also in the future because I’m concerned about what will happen. These opportunities that I have now won’t last.” So while the cafeteria’s open we want to take as much food as we can, don’t we? Stock up for the future because it might not open again.
In the Soviet times it was like that, wasn’t it? A store might have a certain good – now there is coffee.
You have to stand in a queue for half an hour to get a cup of coffee.
Right, so now it’s available and so you would try to buy and get as much as you could because you never know when it’s going to available again, whatever the goods might be. What would be a good example?
Meat, that’s a good example. So, death can come at any time.
Bringing In What Happens After Death
Now, what about after death? If we are a believer in Buddhism or Hinduism, any of these systems that believe in rebirth, it’s quite possible that we could have a worse rebirth where we wouldn’t have these opportunities again. So that’s pretty frightening, if we really take it seriously what it would be like to be a cockroach, for example, and anybody who sees us just wants to step on us – not very nice. Or if we believe in Western or Middle Eastern religions, you can possibly have eternal damnation in hell – not a very nice thought. Or if we think that we become a nothing – “Now I’m dead, I am nothing” – if you think about it, that’s quite frightening for most people because it really is falling into the unknown. As I said, what will it be like to be nothing – “Now I am nothing” – well, there’s still “me.” So, it’s pretty frightening actually.
Or as I was saying, you can also think in terms of future generations, that people just have a bad memory of us or we just left all sorts of problems for future generations. That also is not very nice. None of us would like to be remembered as a horrible person, would we?
So, this whole meditation in terms of worse rebirths after we die can really be very, very helpful in terms of again, developing this healthy sense of “me” – that I would really like to prevent that. If we are grateful for the opportunities that we have, we have this warm feeling toward ourselves, that we want ourselves to be happy – then as result of that obviously we’d like to avoid if possible something horrible happening to us after we die. So we want to do something about it to prevent it.
If we feel helpless and hopeless, that doesn’t lead to a healthy sense of “me.” Rather, we can take responsibility to what happens to us, and that’s where refuge, what I call “safe direction” comes in. It’s not hopeless; it’s not helpless. There is something that can be done, that we can do, to avoid not only losing this opportunity but not gaining it again. Let’s leave however this discussion of safe direction and what we could do to avoid worse rebirths or worse future until our next session and with our remaining short time have some questions if you have.
Difficult Situations of Preventing Suffering
Talking about the suffering of others and the way of alleviation of this suffering, if for example we are faced with a situation where the only way to alleviate the suffering of a hungry bird is to feed it a fat worm, how do we perceive that?
This is not an easy situation, obviously. When it’s the case of do I save the life of my child or do I save the life of the parasitic worms in my child’s stomach, then it’s clear that we save the life of the child because that child can do so much more to benefit others in the human birth than the mental continuum that now is in the form of the worm can do. So there it’s quite clear how you make the discrimination. But when it’s an example of a spider and a fly, or as you were saying the bird and the worm, then it’s not so clear what we would do, how we would choose, is it?
So, we look at examples from the Buddhist literature. How did Buddha in a previous lifetime deal with this situation? In a previous life, the Buddha met a hungry tigress with starving cubs. And what did Buddha do? Buddha fed himself to the hungry tigress. Or Asanga cut off a piece of his leg in order to feed the dog, etc. So, those are the examples of great bodhisattvas. And then we examine “Am I at that level that I can do that?” If you think about it in terms of what we can do now, then consider the karmic effect of, on the one hand, saving the life of the worm or the fly, and in addition preventing the spider or the bird from building up the negative karma of killing. These are two positive things in terms of karma, isn’t it? And if we do nothing when we could do something, then, okay, the fly loses its life or the worm loses its life, and the bird or the spider does build up that negative karma. So, is there anything positive that we’re doing? Well, we’re preventing that spider or the bird from starving; it could somehow find food elsewhere.
So, this is how you analyze. You have a question like this, we need to be able to analyze. This is what I’m saying: if you have the conceptual framework within Buddhism for being able to analyze it, you can figure out what to do. And here what we’re using are the teachings on karmic consequences, cause and effect. So what would be the karmic consequence of one choice or the other choice? And then you discriminate between the two: which is heavier negative karma, which is strong positive karma. That’s how you decide. Think about that.
Self-Cherishing and a Healthy Sense of Self
Related to when we kind of think about the benefits of a precious human rebirth, and then we develop this warm loving feeling towards ourselves, and then we start being concerned about our well-being, isn’t it going in the direction of self-cherishing?
Yes, it definitely is going in the direction of self-cherishing, but that’s not a fault. When working with a healthy self – a healthy sense of self versus an inflated unhealthy sense of self – you have to build up the healthy one first before you deconstruct the unhealthy one. This is why it’s always recommended not to teach voidness to children or young teenagers, who haven’t really established a healthy sense of self. Likewise not to teach it to people who are seriously emotionally disturbed and don’t have a healthy sense of self. This is because if from the beginning you start to deconstruct any sense of self, when these people don’t have a constructive healthy sense of the conventional self, they’re left with nothing and this is very damaging.
So although when you go through the lam-rim as a beginner you’re building up this self-cherishing, you’re building up a strong sense of “me” and so on – this is okay because in the later stages then you will deconstruct whatever inflation is thrown on top of that. But you will have a basis, a healthy basis that is still there. Because remember, as I explained, (that healthy basis) is the conventional “me.” So it’s our attitude toward that conventional “me” (that we need to work on). So first you have to affirm that you have a conventional “me” and have a positive attitude toward it before you start to get rid of the incorrect way of considering it.
That’s why I was saying that there are two levels of going through the lam-rim. One level is as a beginner – you don’t have the Buddhist view of voidness etc.; and then the second is you go back with the Buddhist view – you’ve gone through the whole training, so now, with a Mahayana view and some understanding of voidness, you go back and then go through the whole process again. And you go again and again and again. You go deeper and deeper.
Most of us approach lam-rim really as Dharma-Lite; sincerely, you don’t really think of future lives or believe in them. So, it’s just to benefit this lifetime – fine; it can be helpful to go through the lam-rim development with that scope. It’s in the realm of Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy – fine; we’re not getting into religion that thinks in terms of future lives. Okay.
But if we start with the whole thing of future lives, then look at it – what happens? “I want a precious human life in the future because I want to be able to continue on the path” – okay; but how are we thinking of that? We’re thinking of that in terms of “I want to be with my teachers again” and “I want to be with my friends again” – there’s all this attachment. You know, it’s like we all conceive of ourselves as being a tulku (a reincarnate lama), and “They’re going to find me again and I’m going to be reunited with all my friends and my teachers and I’ll just continue.” Well, it’s certainly not like that; but that is our initial level. There is a great deal of attachment and self-cherishing in the way that we conceive of aiming for that precious human life again. So, (provisionally, it’s) okay, because at least we’re thinking in terms of doing things to avoid worse rebirths.
It is only on the intermediate scope that you start to think, “Well, even if I’m with my old friends again and my teacher and so on there’s still going to be problems,” so you have to develop renunciation of that. That’s the next step. And it’s only when we’ve gone through the whole lam-rim development and now go back to the beginning that you can start to develop the wish for avoiding worse rebirths and getting better rebirths, not because of your attachment to my old house and my friends and my possessions, but more purely: “It takes a long time to attain liberation and enlightenment, so I need many human rebirths, precious human rebirths, to build up all the positive force and understanding.” That’s another level. So then we’re not thinking in terms of benefiting the self out of self-cherishing. But that’s when you go through all this development at a more advanced level.
Having a Sincere Motivation
I think one of the problems really is that we’re introduced to this material much too quickly. We’ve already heard about “well, you need to get rid of self-cherishing.” We’ve heard a little bit about voidness; we’ve heard all these different things. But we have neglected really working on this very basic initial level of going through the lam-rim and sincerely feeling these motivations. It’s very, very hard to sincerely feel these motivations. You can say the words, but it doesn’t really move our hearts.
So I think it’s a little bit more stable, a little bit more realistic, to develop ourselves in terms of the development of the healthy sense of self. Okay, it will be with self-cherishing, if we ever get to the point where we sincerely are thinking about benefiting future lives. Okay, “Yeah, I want a precious human life because ‘may I always be protected by my teachers’” and all of that. Then, when we really have developed further, then apply that understanding of voidness. Don’t try to apply it from the very beginning, because there is a great danger of falling to nihilism.
As long as we understand that this level of working for future lives that is with self-cherishing and attachment is provisional, then it’s okay. I’m not taking it as the real ultimate thing; but saying that it’s provisional and that it’s okay that it’s a provisional step allows us to more easily feel it sincerely. And I think this is really very important, that sincerely I’m working for my future lives. I’m doing something about it. Then we can think about the how I exist in future lives and so on, and so we can refine it.
Let me give an example form my own life. I’m making this huge website, studybuddhism.com, and I’m really hoping that because of so much work that I’m putting into it that, in my next lifetime, I will be a precious human being and I will find it on the internet really really quickly, really young, and really be drawn to it. And it’s all for me, for my benefit. Other people benefit from it – great; but I’m really concerned that I find it very quickly and very easily, and then I’ll be able to continue it and hopefully work on it again, take it further. So sure there’s attachment there, but it allows me to believe this very sincerely, so that finally I can start to think that “well maybe I’m at a certain level of initial scope motivation on a sincere level.”
So what I’m saying is that try to get these motivations to be sincere is really the first step and the most important step. Then you can refine your understanding of the reality of the self and so on in terms of that. But if it’s not sincere, just to work on refining – what are you refining? You’re left with nothing. “I should have no self cherishing because there is no self. So if there’s no self why should I do anything to try to get human rebirths for a self?” Then you’re left with nothing.
So, these are important points. Please try to digest them. Take a moment to do that.